Call of the wild

If you're lucky, you can go through your whole life and not have a survival story to trot out with your friends at the bar, following a few drinks. For most of us, survival means you didn't get broadsided when someone drove through a red light, or you didn't step in the glass when your dog knocked over the vase with the flowers. The closest I've come, mercifully, is when I ran into a jumprope with my neck when I was eight and nearly sliced off the windpipe. (It was on purpose, but no, I wasn't trying to commit suicide, just a stupid kids' game.)  Even then it was hardly a survival situation, more like dumb luck. And that's what most of us get by on: Dumb luck.

Then you hear about these kinds of stories (photo warning at the link, mildly gruesome). In Eureka, California, a 65 year old woman (nearly my mom's age) name of Nell Hamm went hiking with her 70-year old husband Jim in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Now, give them credit for even going on a walk, much less a 10-mile hike (the story says they were at the end of the hike when it happened). They were just strolling along when a mountain lion came out of nowhere and took a personal interest. In Jim's head

The lion pounced on Jim Hamm…. He was trailing his wife when the big cat
attacked, pinning him face down on the trail.

Nell Hamm did all the right things. She approached and screamed at
the lion. Then she grabbed a branch and began beating it on its back.

“It wouldn't let go, no matter how hard I hit it,'' she said in an
interview at Mad River Community Hospital Thursday, where her husband
was in intensive care recovering from surgery.

Jim Hamm, who was trying to tear at the face of the cat, told his
wife to grab a pen from his pocket and stab the cat in the eyes. She
did, but the pen broke.

“That lion never flinched,'' she said. “I just knew it was going to kill him.''

Now, that's kind of a conversation I'd like to have heard. Well, not really. But can you imagine trying to communicate to your wife that she needs to poke the cat that is using your head for a chew toy in the eye with the ballpoint pen in your pocket? 

"I say, dearheart, might you pluck that pen from right over there and give him a right stab in the soft parts?" 

"Where, dear?" 

"My pocket, love." 

"All right, then! Shall I click the inkwell or not?" 

"Honestly, lovey, I don't give a shit."

Somehow I sense it was more abbreviated than that. Anywho:

Nell Hamm picked up the branch again and this time slammed it
butt-end into the cat's snout. The lion had ignored her until then.
Finally, she had its attention. The cat stepped back, and glared at her
with its ears pinned back.

“I thought he was going to attack me,'' she said.

Instead, the cat slipped into the ferns and disappeared.

Good show! I like this Nell, and frankly I think Jim's rather sporting, too. I wish him luck in his recovery.

Now, that's a survival story to tell the grandkids, I tell you what. But what struck me the most about it is that both of them — Nell especially — appear to have remained completely cool and focused in the face of immediate, life-threatening horror. Imagine what you might have done: fled? Screamed uncontrollably? Both? Fainted? You just can't know until it faces you, and that's when you know if you're a survivor or not.

I'm in this sort of mindframe because I've just finished reading a marvelous book called "Deep Survival," by Laurence Gonzales. (I'm fascinated in survival techniques, stories and advice, and right now am taping another episode of Les Stroud's "Survivorman" on Discovery Channel, while eagerly awaiting the return of the more artificial Bear Grylls in "Man vs. Wild." Some of this is book-connected, but I've been writing the book so long it's become a personal interest, too.)  I had thought that Gonzales' book would be story after story of numbskulls getting into trouble in various ways, then getting back out again, or even of seasoned experts getting into trouble, and getting out again, with a sprinkling here and there of theory and advice and big-picture reasoning.

Instead, Gonzales did the opposite: The book has a sprinkling of stories here and there, with a continuing thread of his own father's survival, having been shot down over Germany in WWII and breaking a significant chunk of bonage in the process, nearly getting shot by a German local and having his nose almost do a Michael Jackson. But the big section of the book is about the psychology, the thought process (or lack thereof) of people who are survivors, and of people who aren't. He talks about the ways the human brain works, citing studies and examples such as a test where individuals were asked to count the number of passes a basketball made between players. During the exercise, the scientists had a man in a gorilla suit walk by. Once the test was over, everyone had a number of passes to report, but a significant number never saw the man in the gorilla suit. The brain focuses on one thing — it makes a map of expectation — and happily goes to work. Everything that doesn't fit the expectation, or the map, gets thrown out as unnecessary. That's how people fall down elevator shafts: They expect the elevator, and see the elevator even if it isn't there, and down they go. That's how people get lost in the woods: They have a picture in their mind of what the route will look like, and when it doesn't, they keep that picture and make the world conform to it.

There's much more, but that first bit has made me a little softer towards what we all usually laugh at as boneheaded moves, or Darwin Award type stuff. We all have to make some assumptions to get through life; if I had to check every chair before I sat in it to make sure it was sit-worthy, I'd waste a hell of a lot of time. But there may be that one chair with only three legs that sends me on my keister. The point is that we all have expectations, and that works. But it's when we refuse to abandon those expectations in the face of reality that we get ourselves in trouble — and sometimes become Darwin Award winners. Gonzales points to snowskiiers who, despite being warned not to gun themselves up a hill because of the likelihood of avalanche, do it anyway. He says the people who are most likely to get into trouble doing that kind of thing are the people who got away with it before. They did it, they were successful, they got an emotional rush from it. So, as he says, their minds made a "bookmark" to the pleasurable event. And the next time, regardless of risk, they want that rush — the brain wants that rush — so without really thinking it through, off they go. And become buried in the subsequent snow.

There's a lot more there, and there's no point in going through the whole book in a blog post. The book just had a real effect on me, and then seeing how Nell and Jim handled their own survival situation made me reflect on what I'd learned. They stayed cool, they changed the map (i.e., Okay, we're not getting in the car to go home and make dinner and watch "American Idol," we're now doing this) of expectation in an instant, and didn't stand around going into denial or frozen in fear. Again, we can't all know how we'd react in this situation. But it might just help to be aware that there are other ways to deal with this sort of thing — and that those other ways are more likely to get us out of it than just standing there, waiting to be eaten.

UPDATE (Jan. 28): The cat's not coming back, in this instance.

SECOND UPDATE (Jan. 28): And at the moment, things aren't looking good for the victim, either. Best wishes, Jim.